Too much noise?

I’m not sure if I’m a fan of loud sound systems on boats. At least, I’m not a fan of them when I’m quietly communing with nature while trying to snag a fish or two.

Nor do I like loud music (or people) in quiet anchorages – that kind of defeats the purpose of getting away from it all, and anyway, why should anyone else be subjected to your musical tastes?

That said, there are plenty of game fish trollers who swear playing AC/DC at maximum volume raises marlin, claiming the bass notes attract them to the boat. I’m not sure the same is true when targeting wary snapper or stalking trout around lake edges – any noise, let alone high-volume rock (or worse, hip-hop) music seems to spook them every time.

Mind you, years ago, while fishing weed-choked Lake Aniwhenua for giant rainbow trout, we learned that rattling the anchor chain could trigger a flurry of bites. So would nearby boats lifting their anchors to try a new spot.

Aniwhenua trout had learned to exploit easy pickings in the form of aquatic insects, displaced every time a weed-covered grapnel anchor was lifted. To the trout, the rattle of an anchor chain was like a feeding gong.

So what do fish make of noise? Noise travels better in water than it does in air, so many sea creatures have excellent hearing. Most fish are also sensitive to vibration through their lateral lines – in water, noise and vibration often go together.

Some noises most definitely attract fish. Certainly the sound of baitfish under attack quickly draws more predators to the action and vibrations from the panicking fish also trigger predatory behaviour, sometimes resulting in feeding frenzies. From this perspective, perhaps a bit of noise is a good thing.

Lure makers understand this: many of the most effective designs feature internal rattles or other devices that make noises supposed to trigger predatory fish into biting. Some even have battery-powered noise generators. Many surface lures rely on sound at least as much as their visual appeal: poppers are a good example.

Other lures are big on vibration. Some of the best lures combine visual appeal, vibration and sound, which hopefully makes them irresistible. Adding scent to the equation doubles down on their attractiveness.

There are also electronic devices that mimic the sounds of feeding fish. They are used extensively in competition freshwater bass fishing, purportedly to good effect. Commercial tuna polers learned years ago that playing the wash down hose over the sea behind or beside the boat excited tuna into biting their pole jigs, the splashing imitating the noise of bait fish thrashing on the surface. It’s a technique some recreational fishers use as well, effective on a range of predatory species including kingfish.

While noise in the right context can help fishing success, I’m convinced that making noise can also adversely affect your fishing. I’ve already touched on the importance of stealth when dealing with spooky fish in shallow water (and shallow can be anywhere up to 20m deep, depending on the conditions and fish species), but I think we underestimate the negative effects on fishing of too much boat traffic or noisy fishers.

Much of my snapper fishing over the years was conducted from a 12-foot Fyran dinghy in relatively shallow water. I used to do a lot of fishing in bays, estuaries and tidal waters where the depth was sometimes as shallow as a couple of metres. Tossing unweighted baits down-tide, well away from the anchored boat using light tackle, was a relaxing and rewarding way to fish: snapper, some of them surprisingly large, would bite enthusiastically and run hard in such shallow water.

But make too much noise, by talking loudly or dropping stuff onto the bottom of the boat (especially an aluminium boat), and the bites would dry up instantly. It could take 30 minutes or more for fish to start biting again, if they came back at all.

One spot in Whangarei Harbour we used to fish was only accessible over the high tide – it was dry at low tide. When high tide coincided with dusk or a little thereafter, we would sometimes row a dinghy across the bay just before dark, quietly anchor (no chain) and broadcast small chunks of cut bait behind the boat.

For success in this spot, where the water was never deeper than two metres, quietness was essential. We also took great care with any light, keeping the penlight torch below the gunwales at all times.

So concerned were we about noise, we used to line the bottom of the dinghy with old burlap sacks. Since the boat leaked a bit, these quickly became soaked but they still provided effective sound insulation should one of us drop a knife on the floor. They also helped muffle the noise of flapping snapper when they were brought aboard, which they often were in good numbers.

There are hundreds of fishing spots like this around the New Zealand coast, often overlooked except by a few locals. It’s surprising, though, how employing stealth everywhere can improve your fishing success, not only in tidal estuaries, but also around rocky shorelines and offshore islands.

A stealthy approach remains one of the keys to my success when using soft plastics, especially in less than 15m of water.

Approaching the area I want to fish slowly and quietly with the engine just ticking over before shutting it down and coasting the last few metres improves my fishing success, especially when the water is really shallow. So does making long casts – in shallow water fish are wary of anything overhead, and no matter how quiet your approach, any fish close to the boat will have heard you and moved away.

Once you have coasted to a stop and set up for the drift (with or without a drogue), the boat is essentially silent and can slide virtually on top of fish before they notice it. This is especially true in very shallow water where you’ll sometimes see snapper take the soft bait, they’re so close. Of course, you have to remain quiet inside the boat and it pays to keep a low profile as well, to avoid being seen – that and their silent approach is where kayak fishers have the stealth advantage.

If you are lucky enough to own an electric trolling motor, you have a useful tool for this style of fishing. A trolling motor allows you to move the boat into position almost silently, which means you can shut down the main engine well away from where you want to fish, using the electric for the final approach.

Once in position, you can either drift with the wind or use the electric motor to hold position or move the boat along as you fish. Electric trolling motors are almost silent, especially compared to an internal combustion engines, so they don’t spook fish anywhere near as much.

Even so, in some shallow water fishing situations it pays to turn the trolling motor off if you want to get bites. They are quiet but not totally silent and they also emit vibrations. And as we know, fish are sensitive to both.